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'Living overseas gives you a huge amount of freedom.' : The Call of Nepal's Katmandu : Some Americans Find Life Irresistible in Faraway Land

June 04, 1989|RICHARD M. WEINTRAUB | The Washington Post

KATMANDU, Nepal — Down a rock-strewn, packed-dirt alleyway just a stone's throw off Durbar Marg in the center of Katmandu is a little green door. Nearby, scruffy dogs sprawl in the morning sun, and the smells of a country fighting to overcome basic poverty permeate the air.

Inside the little green door, however, the sounds of a Mozart piano concerto slowly absorb those of life outside. Small tables are scattered through a garden fit for Florence: fruit trees, myriad plants, even a strawberry patch.

Welcome to Mike's American Breakfast, haven for Peace Corps volunteers, tourists, Western-educated Nepalese, diplomats and AID workers, and Katmandu's small band of long-term resident Americans.

At the other end of the world from Brooklyn, Cleveland or Hollywood, it is an oasis that fills a need almost as great as the majestic mountains, gentle people and spiritual longings that have enticed travelers to Katmandu ever since Nepal began opening itself to the outside world in the 1950s.

The Ultimate Escape

Katmandu, last stop on the trail of those in search of spiritual fulfillment. The ultimate escape from the freeway mentality. Wanderlust in the mountains. Freak Street. The nirvana of the backpacking youth of the late '60s and early '70s, the main link in the trail that followed the seasons from Kabul to Goa to the shadows of Mt. Everest.

Kabul is gone now, swept off the youthful traveler's map by 10 years of savage war. Goa's beaches still are a lure, but the fancy resorts and high-paying tourists make it less appealing.

And even Katmandu is changing, if it ever really fit the image it had in much of the West. Freak Street is still there, but the numbers of denizens who gave it its name are far fewer and the Nepalese government has just instituted a rule that to get a visa extension tourists must demonstrate they have spent at least $10 a day instead of the old rule of $5.

For a handful of Americans, now mostly in their 30s and 40s, Katmandu remains the last stop, a place where they have found their niche in a world that wants to move on a little faster than they would prefer.

Peace Corps Experience

Some never heard of it until they came here in the Peace Corps in the 1960s. Others started on the rebellion trail during or after Vietnam and found their answers in these hills and mountains. Still others are Buddhists drawn by the large Tibetan Buddhist community that has taken root since the Chinese swept into Tibet.

They are in their own way solidly middle class and comfortable with a style of life that straddles two worlds but at its core is about as different as it possibly could be from their counterparts' back home. Dentists, restaurant owners, self-made anthropologists, a jack of all trades or two--for all, Katmandu now is home.

Mike Frame, who grew up on his family's farm near Northfield, Minn., had never been on an airplane when he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Nepal.

"I didn't even know where it was and I had to get out my map," he says as he looks across the garden court of his restaurant as the tables slowly fill up with breakfast customers.

The Minnesota farm boy, like scores of other Peace Corps volunteers, got hooked on the country.

"The Peace Corps people keep coming back," he says in his Midwestern accent. "I probably average one a week who I knew somewhere along the way. It's the people. You get to know the people and you feel like you've got a home."

The Peace Corps wrenched a lot of Americans in a lot of places out of their insular worlds and taught them about different peoples and different cultures. The Foreign Service and the Agency for International Development are full of people who got their start in the world beyond American shores in the Peace Corps.

For some, like Mike Frame, the impact was even more profound.

'Needed a Job'

He stayed on for two tours as a volunteer and then signed on with AID in its agricultural extension program. In 1970, he went home, starting a communal farm in Wisconsin. A decade later, he was back. "Ran out of money and needed a job," he says. For several years, the Peace Corps again was his home, this time as one of the paid staff, overseeing field projects, and then, he took the next step.

"I didn't always like what was going on in America; there are so many regulations, so much organization. I liked it here in this society," he says, although like almost all the other long-term Americans here he makes it clear he is not throwing off American life and culture. It's just that for now, something else gives them fulfillment.

Mike's American Breakfast, however, was an accident.

"We were sitting in my (Nepalese) partner's house a couple of years ago and were talking about how it would be nice to open a good restaurant here. I've always liked cooking and good food," he recalled.

"I sort of forgot about it until a couple of weeks later my friend came rushing up all excited and said, 'We can do it!' 'Do what?' I said."

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